East Texas industrial town was ‘high class’
New Birmingham came as fast as it went.
The Cherokee County ghost town, once called the "Iron Queen of the Southwest," was a short-lived industrial town near U.S. Highway 69 and Farm-to-Market Road 343, two miles southeast of Rusk, according to the Handbook of Texas Online.
The handbook states that New Birmingham founder Anderson B. Blevins, a sewing-machine salesman from Alabama who traveled to Cherokee County for business in the mid-1880s, envisioned an industrial center comparable to Birmingham, Ala. So New Birmingham was born.
Chartered in 1887, the first lots were sold in 1888, and a hotel was built there in 1889. The first iron foundry started in 1890, but by 1893, the town was dead, said Kevin Stingley, board president for the Heritage Center of Cherokee County.
At one time, though, New Birmingham had as many as 3,000 people.
Stingley described it as "a very upscale place to be," with "fabulous architectural structure" and a grand hotel with electric lights. President Grover Cleveland was among the guests who stayed at the hotel.
The business district was on Dallas, Galveston and San Antonio streets, and by 1890, New Birmingham had multiple businesses, including a bank, saloon, sash and door factory, and one of the first electric generating plants in the state, according to the Handbook of Texas Online.
Its newspaper, the New Birmingham Times, reported community achievement and proclaimed New Birmingham as "the future manufacturing center of the Southwest," the handbook states.
But Stingley said the town eventually suffered from a capital shortage and tried to get people to invest.
Some English investors were interested, he said, but the land law passed by Gov. Jim Hogg did not allow foreigners to own Texas land.
He said Blevins tried to "wine and dine" Hogg, but the governor refused to repeal the law.
Stingley noted another situation that plagued New Birmingham.
Blevins' brother-in-law, General William Hamman, a wealthy lawyer whose money was behind the original investment in the town, was murdered by Blevins' business partner, who thought Hamman insulted his wife, he said.
According to the Handbook of Texas Online, after the crime, Hamman's wife reportedly ran through the streets asking God to "leave no stick or stone standing" in New Birmingham.
Later on, people saw the plea as an omen, the handbook states. The story was named "the legend of the red-headed widow."
The two sides of the family haven't spoken since the murder, said Stingley, who spoke with descendants.
Eventually, with no financial backing, New Birmingham promoters could not weather the panic of 1893, according to the Handbook of Texas Online.
"There was a severe depression in the country, (and) it really affected the steel and railroad industries," Stingley said.
That included New Birmingham, where pig iron was produced and then sold to steel mills to make railroad car wheels.
Stingley said that at one time, it cost $11 a ton to make the pig iron, which was sold for $22 a ton. But during the panic, the selling price dropped to $6 a ton.
"It was a company town built on credit, (and when the panic happened), they were using cash to keep afloat," he said.
Adding to the problem was an explosion and fire that destroyed the Tassie Belle furnace, leaving almost 300 residents without work, according to the Handbook of Texas Online.
"The Southern Hotel and most of the manufacturing plants closed, and within a short time many residents and merchants began to move away and default on their payments," the handbook states. "On July 4, 1893, the Cherokee County Banner announced that the 'Iron Queen' was dead."
Stingley said when the town collapsed and people had no money, they literally just "loaded up the wagons and moved on."
He said the mayor moved over to Rusk and was elected as a county commissioner after New Birmingham collapsed.
Many others also moved to Tyler or Rusk, but some never recovered, he said.
Although there are little physical remnants of New Birmingham, magnolia trees remain, which were planted in front of the hotel and serve as a reminder of the town's heyday.
"It sprang up so fast and died so fast. It was just a brilliant, fascinating place to be," Stingley said.